Employers Missing ADA Coverage in FMLA Cases

Employers are missing half of Family and Medical Leave Act cases involving employees’ serious illnesses that should also have been reviewed for Americans with Disabilities Act eligibility.

462011275 - disability and gavelThis according to Chicago-based ComPsych, in this report issued last week, June 24 to be exact, titled The Risk of Non-Compliance With ADA. The report breaks down by certain industries the percentage of FMLA cases that need ADA review, yet are being missed.

They include: retail at 13.2 percent, health services at 10.9 percent, manufacturing at 6.8 percent, public administration at 6.7 percent, trades at 6.5 percent and professional services at 5.9 percent.

These numbers, says Matt Morris, a vice president and licensed attorney at ComPsych, are “significant.”

“A common mistake employers make,” he says, “is to deem an FMLA leave request as ineligible, then not review it for ADA purposes.”

The potential consequences of such oversight “can be severe,” says Morris, “since one ADA misstep can lead to an investigation of the employer’s entire leave practices.” Hence the rash of recent ADA class-action lawsuits by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he adds.

Indeed, the EEOC is coming off a record 2013 in terms of ADA penalties paid out by employers, a whopping $109.2 mill. Here are just three of the most sizable payments: $6.2 million by Sears Holding Co. involving 235 plaintiffs, $3.2 million by SuperValu involving 110 plaintiffs and $20 million by Verizon.

I asked Morris for a good example of an ineligible FMLA leave that would be covered under the ADA. Here’s what he said:

An employee has been at the company for six months and breaks his leg. He needs time off for rehab and to recoup, but is denied FMLA leave because he hasn’t been employed long enough. In this case, the employer should still review for ADA accommodation.”

Basically any ineligible FMLA leave for the employee’s own health condition (obviously not for baby bonding, etc.) has the potential to be an ADA leave, he tells me. “Although a ‘serious health condition’ under the FMLA and a ‘disability’ under the ADA are both two different standards, they are each very likely applicable to a health condition that forces someone to be out of work,” says Morris. And while the FMLA requires an employee to have been employed for 12 months and worked 1,250 hours in the last 12 months in order to be eligible, the ADA has no such standard. So, an ineligible FMLA employee still may have an ADA disability.

Perhaps the most common ADA misstep is waiting for an employee to “raise her hand” to request an ADA accommodation specifically or by name, Morris says. Courts have been clear that the “notice requirements under the ADA are nearly identical to those under the FMLA,” he says, but employers often don’t recognize that requests for FMLA leave are “hidden” requests for an accommodation — i.e., leave — under the ADA.

Interestingly, he tells me, employers all share a common misstep, which is that the company created and tried to enforce a standard policy — strange, in part, because generally this is exactly what HR tries to do: create uniformity and equality.

“But … they don’t consider whether the leave should be continued on a case-by-case basis,” says Morris. Maybe the more important thing is to note how easily one mistake can turn into something broader. What can happen — and, in fact, has been the way most of these cases start, he says — is:

1) The employee has an adverse action taken against her (usually, she’s fired).

2) She files a charge of discrimination with the EEOC (such charges are free to file, don’t require a lawyer, and often list several bases on which the employee believes she was discriminated against — for instance, race, sex, religion and then disability).

3) If the EEOC determines that, in that one case, the disability policy had a uniform cutoff — what it calls an ‘inflexible’ policy — it then uses its subpoena power to request the names of all employees who were subject to that policy (fired because they crossed that inflexible line).

4) The EEOC then sues on behalf of all, or most, employees subject to the policy and suddenly there are hundreds of plaintiffs.”

Thus far, this has only arisen because the policy was clear (“if you take more than X amount of time on leave, your job will not be protected”), but even if employers are detecting the right employees [for FMLA leave], they still have to have the expertise to apply such ADA standards as “reasonable accommodation,” “undue hardship” and “significant limitations (of a major life function)” appropriately.

So what should you be keeping top-of-mind? Here’s Morris’ caution:

Employers have been pining for three to four years for additional guidance from the EEOC on how to conduct the interactive process (how to determine a ‘reasonable’ amount of time, etc.). Chances are, given indications from the EEOC itself, the guidance will not come soon. Until then, employers will still be held responsible for appropriately applying these vague standards to a host of factors (e.g., What does the employee do? Could others help? Are there other jobs she could do? How long will the disability last? Are there things [you] can do to help reduce the time?)”

Hope this is helpful.